American Opinions on Military Action and North Korea

Kent Boydston (PIIE)



With military options getting more and more attention, I pause today to consider public opinion on the use of force and its alternatives. A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted recently asked ten questions about U.S. options. As always, precise framing matters but the headline is that two-thirds of Americans oppose a preemptive strike against North Korea, which may account for the marked lack of trust in the ability of the President to handle the issue.

There is a pretty strong consensus, although by no means unanimous, that North Korea is a threat: 83 percent agreed that North Korea is a threat, 70 percent a serious one. However, 74 percent of Democrats and 61 percent of Republicans support a strike on North Korea only if North Korea attacks the U.S. or its allies first. A plausible explanation: about the same number of respondents from each party agreed that if the U.S. did launch a military strike on North Korea it would pose a major risk of starting a larger war in East Asia.

Given this caution, there is not strong support for coercive diplomacy that has a military component. Support for U.S. bombing of North Korean military targets in order to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons stood at only 39 percent in favor with 54 percent opposed. The results do show some party cleavages, however: only 27 percent of Democrats and 36 percent of independents would support such a bombing effort compared to 63 percent of Republicans. By contrast, 76 percent of overall respondents support placing tougher economic sanctions on North Korea and 61 oppose offering financial incentives such as aid and trade.

Support for the pressure strategy thus appears reasonably strong, and the public is not wild about offering incentives. But what about a pause on exercises? The “freeze for freeze” idea was not spelled out exactly in the poll, but about even numbers said they would support the U.S. agreeing to stop conducting military exercises with South Korea in order to try to get North Korea to agree to give up its nuclear weapons (43 percent in favor vs. 47 percent opposed).

Finally, what about the U.S. leadership on the question? When asked who Americans trust to handle North Korea responsibly, 72 percent said U.S. military leaders, about twice as much as said they trusted President Trump (37 percent). One plausible explanation is that Trump’s recent tweets have identified him with policies that the majority of Americans think are risky. Whoever the president believes he is appealing to with his tough talk, it does not constitute a majority.

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